The greening of Grand Avenue

Times Staff Writer

LAURIE OLIN made a name for himself as one of the nation’s leading landscape architects by designing projects to suit the history and culture of each location: The eminently civilized Bryant Park, which sits behind the New York Public Library, and the tailored sculpture garden at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., seem to unfold naturally out of the verdant landscapes around them.

But working in Southern California, where Olin, 68, has been a major force in planning downtown’s Grand Avenue Project, presented special challenges.

“The question for Los Angeles is, ‘What’s native?’ ” says the easygoing, slightly rumpled East Coast architect, surveying a bleak corner of 1st Street and Grand Avenue that is expected to be radically transformed.

“The resident plant community here is mostly coastal sage scrub, which is highly flammable. There’s not a single tree you can see right now that’s native -- nothing here is native. They’re like you and me: They’re all immigrants. There’s a Mexican fan palm. These are ficus from East Asia. Almost everything you can see from here is from Asia or Latin America.”

Instead of plants that evolved here, Olin relies on what he calls the region’s “extraordinary horticultural tradition,” which goes back at least to the 1890s.

Considered an heir to the gracious and civic-minded Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park and planned Stanford University, Olin is pacing the area that will become the ambitious Grand Avenue Project, whose budget may increase from its original $1.8 billion. (The plan’s developer announced recently that it needs tax breaks from the city to make the project feasible.)

It’s hardly Olin’s first visit to L.A.: He landscaped Pershing Square, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s sculpture garden and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Even so, he has a bemused relationship with Southern California and its idiosyncratic Mediterranean climate.

“People here are terrified of deciduous plants,” he says. “If a tree loses its leaves, people think it’s dead. Winter is like old age here. So we’ve learned that we need to have enough evergreen trees that it’s not too gloomy and have tried to get the longest blooming season we can. Even in Los Angeles, after all, there’s something called winter.”

The project’s first phase, in the area surrounded by 1st Street, Grand Avenue, Olive Street and the Colburn School, is conceived as two residential high-rises, numerous restaurants and retail, an upscale grocery store and extensive landscaping. For now, however, the spot is dominated by a charmless parking garage.

Olin, who has worked often with project architect Frank Gehry, is lending more than just his touch with shrubs and bushes. Earlier in the day, poring over a model of the plan, he points out new buildings he likes and old buildings he doesn’t. He points to the area that’s now a jumble of vacant lots and garage ramps that will become a 16-acre park, designed by Mark Rios and Brenda Levin, connecting the Music Center and City Hall.

“So part of my role has been working on the larger urban vision, the connections, the arrangement of the parts,” he says. “Most people don’t think of it, but a city is a landscape. You can add buildings to a landscape. I don’t think you add landscapes to a building -- that’s sort of a decorator’s idea.”

William Witte, president of Related Cos. of California, the project’s developer, calls Olin “a big-picture consigliere” for the plan. “He brings a feel over many years of dealing with urban contexts. There have been very few vertically integrated mixed-use projects on the West Coast, so it’s valuable to have someone who understands how all the pieces fit.”

Olin was born in rural Wisconsin in 1938 and grew up mostly in Alaska, where, as he wrote in his book “Across the Open Field,” "[m]y playgrounds were the woods, streams and hills of the Tanana Valley.”

After earning a bachelor’s in architecture at the University of Washington, he worked for a few years in that field. But Olin went through a crisis of faith in the early ‘70s, a time when a lot of his peers were feeling unstuck.

He took a sabbatical to England and wandered the ancient farmland and rolling downs of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire.

“I was not so sure I wanted to stay in architecture,” he recalls. “I wasn’t exactly trying to find myself but trying to find something meaningful to do with my life. I love architecture. But I moved to being interested in something else as well: the layering of living stuff.”

South Britain has been landscaped continuously since the Bronze Age, with the stamp of the Romans and Saxons still visible. “Why the English landscape impressed me so much was because it was a working landscape that was very old, very dense in terms of population, ecologically rich and very layered.... Layers of time were still visible.”

The scene inspired him “to produce a dynamic, culturally diverse, economically viable, dense landscape that was both beautiful and ecologically rich.”

Olin has tried to bring that lesson to his work since.

He’s responsible for a number of projects in London and Philadelphia, where his 60-person firm, Olin Partnership, is based and where he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also known for recent projects in New York, including Battery Park City and Columbus Circle; in both cases, much of his work is essentially a roof deck, with foliage over a concrete platform and subway station.

This was also the case with a project he completed with Gehry, Barcelona’s Villa Olympica. “I treated the whole building site as a landscape that towers came out of,” he says. Another Gehry collaboration, which he calls “a warmup exercise for this one,” was the Stata Center, a high-tech lab-office-classroom complex at MIT.

“I like to work with him on everything,” says Gehry. “He becomes a real partner in the process. He understands architecture, and he’s willing to explore ideas. I trust his design judgment impeccably. The biggest problem, because he’s so in demand, is getting his attention.”

The Boston Globe praised MIT for Gehry’s architectural risk-taking and Olin’s purposeful terracing, though then-Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff likened it to “a New England village envisioned by Dr. Seuss.”

“It’s early days,” Olin says of the L.A. project, which has fallen behind schedule and likely will break ground next year.

The general issues are already becoming clear, though. The trick, Olin says, is “trying to figure out how to have our cake and eat it too” by creating a pleasing setting within budget.

Some of the challenges are technical. The streets of Bunker Hill, for instance, drop steeply, which has led in the past to the creation of inaccessible plazas.

“Related didn’t want that, we didn’t want that, and the citizens didn’t want these isolated fortress-like things. So how do you take this difficult sloping site and produce decent public space and address the street and open it up?”

The slope, though, gives the site some semblance to a European hill town, with pedestrian traffic, restaurants and cafes at various levels, and inspiring views all around. But he doesn’t want the place to be all stairs.

When it comes to roof decks, there are some things you can’t do in L.A.: Most mosses and sedums, which are lightweight and good for roofs, are destroyed by dry heat and air pollution.

Olin wants as many trees as possible, but they’re not only heavy, they also require a lot of soil, which weighs almost 100 pounds per cubic foot.

“At the Getty we did a lot with vines, and we have color and seasonality and things like that. Vines are like trees without a backbone: They lie around and don’t have any stiffness. But they have all that organic matter that needs to photosynthesize, and they need roots and soil and air and nutrients. So even with vines there’s a lot of technical fooling around to pull it off.”

The technical difficulties, of course, quickly acquire a financial dimension.

“We’ve been in schematics for months,” says Olin, whose role will shrink after the planning is completed. “Every time we do a drawing, someone takes it away to go and price it and comes back saying, ‘Oh, my God, it costs more than I thought it would.’ ”

Some challenges, such as this one, Olin considers a normal part of the process. Other things drive him crazy.

“A lot of people have this strange idea that there’s this gulf between nature and culture,” he says, standing across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“I think that’s crazy. We’re all in nature right now! In the middle of L.A.: Ecologically it has living elements. But most people can’t see it, or they’ve forgotten it. So the question is how not to have to choose between nature and culture but to put them together in a productive way.” Despite the long slog ahead, he’s excited by the prospect.

“To be dining outdoors up there and to see Disney Hall and see the traffic coming and going and the lights of downtown -- I think it will be spectacular.”

scott.timberg@latimes.com